A Baptist at a Lutheran seminary was different. For both Jeff the Baptist (me) and the seminary.
A cultural shift is one way to describe walking down the seam of the reformation.
Baptists tend to follow the modality of John Calvin, although several of the finer points are debated. Lutherans tend to follow the modality of Martin Luther. The men were quite different and would not have been welcomed in each other’s community.
Calvin, a lawyer, worked out his faith in a systemic way. He was young when he wrote his ideology based on Augustine’s work. Calvin’s approach was often known as the theology of glory.
Luther, a monk, worked out his faith in a relational way. He did not think systemically. He worked out the application of faith to everyday life. Luther’s theology is known as the theology of the cross.
Both had grace as a central theme. For Calvin, grace covers the shortcomings and the Christian journey was moving away from sin toward grace. Luther was different. The Christian journey toward Grace leads the Christian towards sin to work out the application of grace to the everyday struggles of life.
I had freshly finished my first stint as a pastoral counselor, cutting my teeth at a prison working with sexual offenders, particularly religious leaders. I had written my master’s thesis on religious addiction, or how people use religion to dissociate from their darkness instead of integrating it with responsibility and repentance. I had constructed a model of counseling that permitted me to have a private practice with an office in the church, while also be a staff member of a church as a consultant for the church and for individuals. I would take my turn speaking and integrate the human stories of struggle in the scripture, applying it to everyday life. I would speak on the rape of Tamar, from the perspective of a victim of abuse, and I would speak on the rape from the perspective of the perpetrator, and how thinking gets twisted. There are so many stories of human struggle. Abraham and anxiety, Absolom and how to split a group (church), sibling rivalry of Joseph and his brothers, the competition in the Sarah. The model was based on the belief that proclamation would create community discussion and people’s process of numbing out would be interrupted. It was a Lutheran approach to Christian faith in a Calvinistic environment.
Then, a fire broke out in my neighbourhood.
From the window of my home office I could see Arthur, a member of my church, directing traffic as a volunteer firefighter. When I strolled over to converse, I learned the local fire department chaplain had just moved and there was a vacancy. I applied and became a fire department chaplain.
Newly minted as a chaplain, but ordained for 10 years, I was curious about this new mix of faith and trauma.
My first order of business in my new role was to visit Bill, a veteran member, recovering from surgery. He had retired in 1955 from our local department. It was a lovely visit until I eagerly asked about his firefighting experience.
“So, Bill, what was the most memorable fire you ever attended?”
I expected a heroic tale of a tremendous blaze on an icy winter’s night. It took Bill all of 8 seconds to ponder before he burst into sobs. A chimney fire in 1949 had become a structure fire. In the morning, as Bill and his fellow firefighters were cleaning up the debris, he picked up a blanket and found the body of a baby.
50 years had not diminished the pain, the impact was as fresh as if it happened last night.
Just about the same time, Halifax suffered a tragic plane crash off the coast of Peggy’s Cove. SwissAir Flight 111 en route from New York to Geneva crashed 5 kilometres out. First responders including Police, Fire, Ambulance, Military, Search and Rescue, and CISM trauma teams assembled.
It was the early days of Critical Incident Stress Management and its baptism by fire in Atlantic Canada. The Fire Service Association of Nova Scotia began its work to debrief critical incidents for first responders. I was invited to join the team.
Thus, I was provided not only the opportunity to explore the mix of faith and trauma, but also to bear witness to those who struggled to find grace.
Chaplaincy attends to those who struggle. It does not have answers but stands with brokenness, with empathy, with emptiness and bewilderment. It responds to a call and waits for a presence in severe moments.
Unlike the Church, which is an institution, chaplaincy stands on the seams and walks with the people who have been dealt a blow and perhaps have lost all they believe to be true about the world.
My education as a Baptist at a Lutheran seminary created a crossroads for me. It was the first place I noticed the divergence of ways to approach faith. I continue to stand at the crossroads, where chaplaincy and Church meet. The Fire Department also approaches this place, a place where faith and pain meet.
Spirituality is not about beliefs, it is about what holds us together when we can no longer think, no longer hope, and are on the verge of collapse.
I always said, there are some spiritual groups that sell fire insurance while other groups will go into hell to get you out. I have made a personal commitment to my brothers and sisters: I will come and get you from the burning issues of mental health. I will serve those who serve others.